Locating James Byrnside’s 1774 survey: Tracing Virginia’s Nutty Real Estate History and Translating Handwritten Land Documents

We can trace history through the documentation left by our forefathers in the courthouse land books. When it came to real estate, they spared no ink. I found a circa 1774 survey of the Byrnside’s Fort property from a 1780 land grant by Thomas Jefferson. You’d think it would be easy to use that to understand the boundaries of the original Byrnside property. But think again.

If you’ve seen surveys from 1774, you’ll know that you’re lucky to get a plat diagram at all, and they usually contain absolutely zero references to identifiable points on the land, i.e., creeks, roads, and so forth. Usually it’s just an outline with directions and distance. Nor did they generally record the locations of homes, as they do today. This would have been helpful, but they generally didn’t do it. So it wasn’t easy.

My little plat here is not perfect (I hire surveyors to do this for me when I litigate real estate boundary cases, rather than rely on my own novice skills at doing this), but I’m pretty sure the screenshot below is the pertinent part of the original plantation. It holds a few surprises, including extending much closer to the town of Union than I previously thought. But back to my point, in order to fully understand historical real estate documents in West Virginia, you have to understand Virginia’s nutty history of land titles, as well as the foreign language of 18th century land documents.

A close plot of the original bounds of the Northeast sector of the James Byrnside plantation, as it existed in the 18th century and early 19th century.

Virginia has an unusual basis for its real estate titles, which goes back to the very beginning, and has several twists and turns.

In the beginning of England’s first colony in the New World, the Virginia Company of London had the rights to settle the land. In 1624 the Company’s charter was terminated and the colony of Virginia became part of the manorial holdings of the King. This effectively resulted in the King of England being a feudal lord over Virginia, rather than its sovereign ruler.

In 1627 Governor George Yeardley began the headright system of granting land to those who brought people into the colony. Land could be taken out at the rate of 50 acres per imported person. Grantees had to pay annual quitrents (a kind of real estate tax), and “plant and seat” the land in order to keep it.

King James I called smoking “a filthy novelty,” but tobacco proved the salvation of his Virginia colony. Seeds from the West Indies, grown in Virginia’s soil and climate, produced a pleasing leaf. From 1615 to 1619, tobacco exports increased twentyfold (Sidney E. King, artist). Courtesy, National Park Service.

Tobacco farming requires large tracts of land and many workers. In order to attract additional settlers, the Virginia Company started the headright system, which offered land grants. Many of these settlers ended up being indentured servants who worked the land for wealthy sponsors in exchange for their passage across the Atlantic.

An 1878 depiction of tobacco cultivation at Jamestown, ca. 1615. From A School History of the United States, from the Discovery of America to the Year 1878 by David B. Scott (1878)

The American Civil War wasn’t the first civil war to drastically alter the boundaries and laws of Virginia. In the mid-1600s there was a great civil war in England, which resulted in “The Fairfax Grant” in Virginia. King Charles I ended up losing England’s Civil War against Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan Parliamentarians, which resulted in Charles being beheaded. Charles’ son, subsequently fled to France and declared himself to be Charles II – King of England. He had few supporters and less money. So he started to grant land he didn’t actually own: land in Virginia. One of his big supporters who received land was Lord Culpeper.

In 1649, from exile in France, King Charles II gave the “Northern Neck” – the area between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers – to seven of his supporters including Thomas, Lord Culpeper. This was a win-win for both parties. At least so it seemed at the time. Charles II disposed of nothing with immediate value. And it would result in immeasurable wealth for others down the road. Well, it took almost 100 years, but eventually a descendant of Lord Culpepper, Thomas Sixth Lord Fairfax, converted these grants into clear title to about 5.2 million acres.

Lord Fairfax VI, Masonic Lodge, Alexandria II

Over the years Culpeper purchased the shares of the others. By 1690 the majority of the shares eventually became associated primarily with Thomas, Lord Fairfax (hence “Fairfax County,” where my wife grew up). Subsequent grants in this huge proprietorship ensued thereafter. Because of the proprietorship nature of this setup, grants in the Northern Neck are still today not to be found in the Virginia archives. In effect, there were basically two separate colonies granting land within “Virginia” during this period of time.

Interestingly, “headrights” were never recognized in the Northern Neck. The reason for this is because the “Northern Neck” was outside the boundaries of Tsenacomoco, of course (the original Kingdowm of “Powhatan” is he has mostly been referred to as in the history books – the father of Pocahontas):

The transfer of ownership of the entire Northern Neck affected development of Virginia until the American Revolution. When the Englih arrived in 1607, Northern Virginia was outside the boundaries of Tsenacomoco, the area controlled by Powhatan. The 1649 grant made Northern Virginia “different” in the colonial period, long before the modern regional classifications of NOVA (Northern Virginia) and ROVA (Rest of Virginia).

Fairfax Grant, 1747 (after resolution of Fairfax v. Virginia by Privy Council in 1745)
Source: Library of Congress, A survey of the northern neck of Virginia, being the lands belonging to the Rt. Honourable Thomas Lord Fairfax Baron Cameron, bounded by & within the Bay of Chesapoyocke and between the rivers
Rappahannock and Potowmack:With the courses of the rivers Rappahannock and Potowmack, in Virginia, as surveyed according to order in the years 1736 & 1737

Boundaries have always been a gold mine for lawyers in Virginia.

There was substantial disagreement over the boundaries of the Northern Neck Proprietary. In 1730 Fairfax’s son, also named Thomas, just to keep things simple and understandable, got into a legal dispute with the colony of Virginia over the extent of his domain, its size being defined by the location of two rivers whose sources were unknown at the time Charles had made his grant.

Lord Fairfax argued that the Rapidan River was the real Rappahannock, thus enlarging his ownership. Incredibly, Lord Fairfax won his case in 1745, throwing into tumult the legal status of land granted by Virginia in the fork of the Rappahannock River. Many residents repatented under Lord Fairfax. Others ended up in court. Lawyers profited.

In 1699 a new system of treasury rights (or treasury warrants) came into being, and it effectively did away with the headright system. Anyone could purchase rights to land for 5 shillings for each 50 acres. They had to move the land to the end-consumer. Otherwise, under the deal, the land would revert to the Crown. Even the governors of Virginia were in the land speculation business and were moving it quickly. Here’s a couple land grants we’ve acquired issued by Lord Dunmore:

A couple of treasury warrant grants we found signed by Lord Dunmore. The one in the frame is currently on display at the Fort Pitt Museum in their exhibit about Lord Dunmore’s War.

A law of 1705 forbade the granting of patents in excess of 4000 acres. Nevertheless, several companies and individuals were occasionally given permission to take out large tracts, including well connected individuals, such as George Washington. Land companies and speculators played an important role in facilitating the settlement of the land because it was easier for immigrants to buy from the company (which had already purchased the treasury rights) than it was to go to the courthouse in Williamsburg.

John Vanmeter (in the fork of the Shenandoah River), Robert Beverley (in Augusta County), and Benjamin Borden (Rockbridge County) obtained large grants of approximately 100,000 acres starting in the 1730’s.

This is where the Greenbrier Valley comes in, and the Byrnside Plantation.

The Loyal Land Company was granted 800,000 acres in 1749, the Greenbrier Company got 100,000 acres in 1751, both in the western part of the colony (in the Greenbrier Valley, including what would much later become Greenbrier County). The grantees were given four years to survey the tract and purchase treasury rights, which eventually was extended up through the Revolutionary War period. There were numerous lawsuits relating to conflicting claims between early settlers utilizing settlement rights, and land awarded as a bounty for military service.

The “Loyal Company of Virginia” was a land speculation company formed in Virginia for the purpose of recruiting settlers to western Virginia. The primary founder of the company was John Lewis, the patriarch of the Lewis family, and father of Gen. Andrew Lewis. He had three other main partners: Thomas Walker, Joshua Fry, and Peter Jefferson (father of Thomas Jefferson). They planned an early expedition to the West, which never came to fruition. It no doubt played a part in Peter Jefferson’s son’s mind years later, when he ordered the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

This is why the Lewis family was all over the Greenbrier Valley surveying in 1750 through 1752. It was in 1751 that John Lewis and his son Andrew discovered the wonderful spring in what is now downtown Lewisburg, West Virginia, which would later be named after them. During this time, Thomas Lewis, one of John’s sons, surveyed 400 acres called the “Fork Survey,” which I believe to be much of the Byrnside property, if not all of it. This would have been the forks of Indian Creek – later known as Byrnside Branch (North) and (Tackett Branch (South). They come together just above Salt Sulphur Springs to form “Indian Creek,” as it is known today. Then, Byrnside Branch was generally referred to as Indian Creek. Or the “headwaters of Indian Creek.”

Braddock’s Road at Big Savage Mountain. Captain Robert Orme described how several supply wagons were demolished on this “almost perpendicular” descent of Big Savage Mountain, located in western Maryland. (David Preston); from https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/french-indian-war/braddocks-defeat-an-interview-with-david-preston/

However, all this flurry of surveying quickly came to an end with the outbreak of the French and Indian War. One of the partners, Thomas Walker, was appointed commissary general for Virginia troops and agent for the Braddock expedition. Braddock was defeated, and as you likely saw in Last of the Mohicans, there were “war parties” across the frontier for a few years. You could say that this was less than ideal for the western real estate market. The consequence was that the whole thing stalled like a bad real estate deal. Which I guess it was. The land company’s charter eventually expired in 1757. They tried several times, unsuccessfully to extend their charter.

In 1763, Britain issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which restricted white settlement beyond about the line of the Greenbrier River, reserving all the land in between that line and the Ohio River, for Indians. But it wasn’t to last. Pontiac’s War took place during this time, and there were a number of massacres in western Virginia, including a scorched earth campaign through the Greenbrier Valley in 1763 by Cornstalk and the Shawnee. This resulted in every cabin in the valley being burned, including the first cabin of James Byrnside, which mind you was on the English side of the Greenbrier River.

The Greenbrier Valley, and other frontier areas, were essentially a no-man’s land during this time. It was a battlefield. It wouldn’t be until the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768, that the smoke started to clear on the western Virginia frontier. This “treaty” pushed the line of legal settlement (at least as far as English law concerned) back to the Ohio River. This result was inevitable, regardless of what King George III thought he wanted to achieve in North America. As we can now see, neither the King, nor any colonial government, could enforce otherwise at the time. By 1769, and into 1770, English settlers started trickling back into the Greenbrier Valley. Or maybe it was a flood. Who knows…. James Byrnside included, who decided this time he was bringing friends with guns, and also building a fort first when they arrived. And not a pillow fort, either.

The Indian Reserve was a barrier to western expansion by Virginia colonists
Source: University of North Carolina, “Early Maps of the American South,” A map of the Southern Indian district of North America (by John Stuart, 1775)

During the Revolutionary War, it was not possible to obtain land patents. A Virginia State Land Office was created in 1779 by the new state government, which was to be led by Thomas Jefferson, and it set about the business of approving land claims that had languished since 1775, and processing military service warrants. It was during this period of time in which Thomas Jefferson, now Governor, issues a bunch of land grants in the Greenbrier Valley on the lands surveyed by the Lewis family in the early 1750’s, including the 1,180 acre survey for James Byrnside, which had actually been performed in 1774. He issued the grant to Byrnside in 1780. Clearly he had been there since at least 1770, but it took another 10 years to make it legal.

Here’s the plat of the survey, which tells you nothing without the ability to locate one of the corners on the ground. Unfortunately, there are absolutely zero references on the map to guide us:

1780 plat of 1,180 acre survey for James Byrnside, for the 1780 grant by Thomas Jefferson, plotting a 1774 survey obtained by James Byrnside.

Fortunately, it also has a written “metes and bounds” description, which is a series of directions and distances from a beginning point, moving clockwise around the property border, and eventually returning back to the beginning point.

1780 plat and metes and bounds description of 1,180 acre survey for James Byrnside, as granted by Thomas Jefferson in 1780, plotting a 1774 survey obtained by James Byrnside.

So that brings us to the 19th century, when Monroe County was carved out of Greenbrier County, so that its residents didn’t have to cross the Greenbrier River every time they wanted to go to the courthouse. Most properties were re-surveyed to fix old problems and clarify who owned what, and where. Just like now, local government likes to make sure they’re getting every penny they can obtain in taxes. They learned early on to stay on top of all taxable acreage.

A more zoomed-out view of the general plot, as compared to the town of Union, which wasn’t created and itself surveyed into streets and lots, until 1800. That area was the James Alexander plantation prior to 1800. The Southwest sector is incomplete and is a work in progress. I was attempting to plot the boundary of the 1,000 acres circa 1800. The original 1,180 is going to take awhile, as it would have run off up into the mountains (the “Knobs”) at left, and also down into the valley at lower left, as well. It seems to me that somebody fudged the numbers on that survey, as it seems more like 10,000 acres. Maybe Thomas Jefferson was right about James Byrnside trying to hold more land than he was entitled to.

So as of the end of the 18th century, James Byrnside’s son, John Byrnside, now owned the Byrnside Plantation. James moved to the point of confluence of the Greenbrier River and the New River (present day Hinton, West Virginia), and owned that particular point of land. That area is now Summers County, West Virginia, but was then Montgomery County, Virginia, and was roughly the location of Culbertson’s Fort. There’s actually a historical marker for that fort today, on what was James’ land.

James moved there and took up a new life with a new family in the 1780s and 90s, despite still being married to Isabella Byrnside. James first leased his plantation to a couple of enthusiastic farmers, but eventually deeded the Byrnside’s Fort property and plantation to his son John in the late 1780s. Apparently, Isabella thereafter lived with her son John at the fort. Eventually the family brought James back to die “in Union,” in 1812, and buried him there. I wonder whether he was alive or not when he “died” in Union in 1812. I’ve looked for his grave but haven’t found it. Though there are multiple illegible tombstones around the Byrnside family graves in Union.

1,000 acre survey for John Byrnside, circa 1803, of his plantation, including the same boundaries in the Northeast sector as he received from his father in 1788.

In the late 18th century, John Byrnside reconfigured the land. He had sold some; bought some, and had it resurveyed. Fortunately for us, it still contained the original lines of the old 1774 survey, on which the plantation house was located. As you can see from the Google Earth screenshots, the Byrnside Plantation as of the early 19th century obviously contained the prime usable land of the original 1,180 acre grant. As you go to the Southwest on either of the surveys, you run into rocky hills, or even mountains.

The above handwritten survey photo is the survey John had recorded, as it appears today in the Monroe County Courthouse. John Byrnside was himself a surveyor and was the first county surveyor for Monroe County. He had also been the first surveyor for Greenbrier County when it was created. Most all of the early surveys in Greenbrier County’s courthouse are done by John Byrnside. Same thing in Monroe.

Looking at the original 1774 boundary, which for the most part was the same near the fort at the time of the 1803 survey, which helps to locate the pertinent boundary lines, we now realize that almost everything you see in the drone shot below is in that survey, with the fort being in the distance at far left.

And of course, there’s the plantation itself surrounding the house, which probably remains much the same today.

Turning to the left from the first drone photo above, the road heading through the center in the next drone photo below, which runs in front of Mountain View Elementary School (the big building at center), was approximately the Northern border of the eastern sector of the 1774 survey tract. It ran out to the first real corner, center right in the distance, and then turning South (to the right) towards Indian Creek:

It’s pretty interesting to track the history of property, which isn’t that difficult once you take the time to do it. It really puts things into perspective. For reference, when the 1774 was made, it would still be another 26 years before the town of Union, at left, was laid out and itself surveyed. Most of “civilization” laid way the hell off in the far distance of the above photo, beyond the ridges in the distance. And then some…..

2 thoughts on “Locating James Byrnside’s 1774 survey: Tracing Virginia’s Nutty Real Estate History and Translating Handwritten Land Documents

  1. In regard to, [Excerpt: Eventually the family brought James back to die “in Union,” in 1812, and buried him there. I wonder whether he was alive or not when he “died” in Union in 1812. I’ve looked for his grave but haven’t found it. Though there are multiple illegible tombstones around the Byrnside family graves in Union.]

    I have additional documents which identify the general location of James Byrnside & wife Isabella Patterson Byrnside grave locations. They were wooden and not stone. Rotted away long ago. Will touch base with sometime…

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